Inside the rare earth separation plant, a worker checks the levels of each machine. Photo: Joel Tozer
Estonia enters the race in scramble to secure rare earths
With China's rare earth industry blighted by claims of toxic pollution, Estonian company Silmet is stepping up production to meet demand for rare earths essential in the manufacture of electrical gadgets and green technologies
In the early 1970s, the town of Sillamäe in the Ida-Virumaa region of Estonia had been taken off the map and, over time, given code names such as Leningrad 1 or Moscow 400. Closed off to the world, the Soviet Union began experimenting with a mixture of acids to try to separate rare earth elements. At the time little was known about how to extract these tight-knit elements and how exactly they could be used.
Today, companies around the world are scrambling to get their hands on any number of the 15 or 16 elements which are essential in the production of high-tech gadgets such as iPods and green technologies such as wind turbines.
'Outside of China, there are very few people who know about the hydrometallurgy of rare earths. I believe that the largest concentration of those people are right here in Sillamäe, Estonia,' David O’Brock, CEO of the rare earth supplier, Silmet, said.
Despite the name, rare earth elements are actually fairly common. Several of the elements produced in Estonia including cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, are more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lead and silver. The hard part is finding deposits that can be mined cheaply.
Many countries are...
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